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Too Heavily Laden

Found 12 February 1866, near Quiberon, Brittany, France

In a bottle:

H.J. Dennis to Jno. Dennis, Esq., at Great Shelford, nr Cambridge. Farewell, father, brothers, sisters, and my little Edith. Ship London, Bay of Biscay, Thursday, 12 o’clock noon. Reason — Ship too heavily laden for its size, and too slight a house over engine room, all washed away from deck. Poop windows stove in — water coming in everywhere. God bless my little orphan. Request to send this, if found, to Great Shelford. Storm, but not too violent for a well-ordered ship.

This was one of six messages contained in three bottles that washed up at the same spot on the French coast. It was found 32 days after the sinking of the SS London, a British steamship that was sailing from Gravesend, England to Melbourne, Australia. The ship left Gravesend on 13 December 1865, carrying at least 239 passengers and crew, and laden with 400 tons of railway iron and coal. As it sailed past Purfleet on the Thames, a seaman on the riverbank was reported to have remarked that this would be its last trip. “She is too low down in the water,” he said. “She’ll never rise to a stiff sea.”

After sheltering from heavy weather at Plymouth, the London crossed the English Channel and headed into the Bay of Biscay. There it was caught in a terrible storm, which led its Captain Martin to order a return to Plymouth. However, huge waves swamped the low-sitting ship, and swept away all but one of its lifeboats. The London sank, stern first, on 11 January 1866, with those on board reported to have sung the hymn Rock of Ages as they went down. Nineteen survivors escaped in the only remaining lifeboat. At least 220 people died, with some reports also including several unregistered stowaways, plus a baby that was born on board. Henry Denis was a widower who left a young daughter, “now entirely an orphan”.

An inquiry found the main cause of the tragedy to be overloading. The loss of the London, and several other vessels, prompted a government commission led by MP Samuel Plimsoll to introduce a mandatory load mark line painted on ships’ hulls to indicate levels of buoyancy and prevent over-loading. The mark is now known as the Plimsoll Line.

[Era, 4 March 1866, Reynold’s Newspaper, 25 March 1866, Newcastle Journal, 13 September 1867]

You can read more about the London and the Plimsoll Line in the Messages from the Sea book.